Like the 1997 release Sacred Island, Kulanjan sees Taj Mahal blending the blues with ethnic folk music. While the earlier album explored the music of Hawaii, however, here Taj and the Malian kora player Toumani Diabate seek to reveal the connections between the blues and the music of Western Mali.
And these connections are apparent from the opening cut, a new version of Taj's "Queen Bee". Diabate's kora - plucked, according to the excellent sleeve notes, using a technique similar to the finger-thumb style of guitar playing Taj learned from earlier blues masters - drives this pretty, country blues while Ramatou Diakite's honeyed vocals on her improvised Wasulunke lyrics perfectly complement Taj's distinctive, gravelly voice. Other tracks that come from the blues, rather than the Malian, tradition are just as successful. Taj and Diabate's take on the traditional "Ol' Georgie Buck" sounds like the only way to play this song after just one listen. Curiously, this cut reminds me of Led Zeppelin's early '70s attempts to fuse their Willie Dixon-influenced electric blues with English folk ("Gallows Pole", "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" and "The Battle of Evermore"), which either shows one of the many wonderful, hidden connections between the musics of the world, or that I'm losing my mind. "Catfish Blues", meanwhile, is the album's purest blues in form, yet it is Diabate's retuned kora that lifts the song far above the hundreds like it.
The Malian cuts sound, perhaps only to this untrained ear, mostly like straight West-African folk music. Connections between the two traditions are still apparent here, however. "Fanta" takes the Malian tradition of the praise song and renders it as an infectious Cajun blues, sung in French by Taj and dedicated to Diabate's wife. And "Guede Man Na", although a million miles from the blues in form, has the heartfelt sadness of great blues music.
Ultimately, though, deciding which of the album's tracks can be termed as 'blues' and which are 'Malian' is a fairly pointless exercise. Taj and Diabate effortlessly fuse elements of both musics, and in Kulanjan they have produced a superb release that succeeds on its own terms.
Track Listing: 1. Queen Bee 2.Tunkaranke 3.Ol' Georgie Buck 4.Kulanjan 5.Fanta 6.Guede Man Na 7.Catfish Blues 8.K'an Ben 9.Take This Hammer 10. Atlanta Kaira 11. Mississippi-Mali Blues 12. SaharaPersonnelTaj Mahal - vocals, guitar, piano (5); Toumani Diabate - kora; Kassemady Diabate - vocals (2,4, 5,6,8,10, 12), guitar (8); Ramatou Diakite - vocals (1,6,, 9, 10, 12); Bassekou Kouyate - ngoni, bass ngoni; Dougouye Koulibaly - kamalengoni, bolon (6,12); Lasana Diabate - balafon; Ballake Sissoko - kora (3,6,7,9,10)
I was first exposed to jazz while working overseas in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I would listen to the Voice of America on the radio and they had a nightly jazz program on at 10:00pm. I learned a lot about jazz listening to this program. I also had a friend who listened to real jazz by artists like Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. On my way home from Africa I landed in New York and had the opportunity to see the George Adams/Don Pullen quartet at the Village Vanguard as well as Kenny Barron and Ron Carter at another club, and was in heaven.